Whistleblower: Recall too late for this home

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 6, 2011 - 2:07 PM
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In December, this night light burst into flames in the bedroom of Rebecca Modert’s 3-year-old son, damaging the room and spewing ash. The night light has since been recalled, but the manufacturer has not compensated the Vadnais Heights family for the damage to the room.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Minutes after Rebecca Modert put her 3-year-old son to bed, a burning smell filled the house and smoke spread through the upstairs hallway.

The Vadnais Heights mother of two rushed into her youngest son's bedroom and discovered the color-changing night light that her husband bought five days earlier was on the floor and in flames. Modert quickly blew out the fire and comforted her son, who had shoved his stuffed animals under a blanket to protect them and covered his eyes after seeing smoke, fire and "sparkles fly across the floor."

Two months later, the LED night light manufactured by AmerTac was recalled and pulled from store shelves after the company received 18 reports that the light overheated. Three of the incidents caused minor property damage and one caused minor burns, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The recall covered 261,000 night lights sold between March 2009 and January 2011.

It was the second recall for AmerTac in less than a year. In December 2010, the New Jersey company recalled more than 270,000 "Forever-Glo" cylinder night lights over an electrical problem.

In Modert's case, no one was hurt in the Dec. 23 fire. But the malfunctioning light caused about $2,700 in damages, she said. The small blaze scorched wallpaper around the night light and carpet where it fell. Ash was sucked into the home's ventilation system and spread throughout her son's bedroom, coating toys and books.

For seven months, Modert has been wrangling with the company over reimbursement for the damage. At first, she said, the company led her to believe AmerTac would compensate the family. But by June, a company representative called and made it clear there would be no check in the mail.

"I was steamed," Modert said. "But I wasn't shocked because it had been so long and they were dragging it out."

Whistleblower contacted AmerTac, but the company's chief executive officer and other representatives didn't respond to requests for comment.

Consumer advocates say people who suffer damages by defective products often have to sue the manufacturer.

In a typical recall, companies might replace a defective product or pay for a replacement, but they don't usually pay for damages caused by the malfunctioning item, said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG -- the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups.

Companies "negotiate the terms of the recall to be the least expensive as they can," Mierzwinski said.

Modert filed an online report about the defective night light immediately after the fire with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. She also posted a review of the item on Amazon.com, warning others about the potential fire hazard. And she repeatedly phoned and e-mailed AmerTac about the problem, providing photos of the melted light.

Initially, AmerTac took a friendly approach, based on e-mails from the company Modert provided to Whistleblower. In a March 1 message, the company asked Modert to provide estimates for new carpet and "information regarding reimbursement for your books and your sons [sic] toys." An April 8 e-mail provided directions on how to submit a complete list of damage.

But the tone changed in June, when a company representative called and conducted what Modert called a "get-in-my-face grilling." Modert said AmerTac disputed some of her specific damage claims and told her not to expect more than $35, even though she needed to replace carpet and wallpaper and do something about the odor that still permeated the room.

"Basically, everything in the room that was exposed was sprayed with the foul-smelling toxic ash," Modert said.

Modert said the representative refused to process her claim unless she sent the defective light to the company. But she said a Consumer Product Safety Commission employee instructed her to keep the light in case the commission needed to investigate further. Modert also figured she would have to hold on to the light as evidence if she decided to file a lawsuit.

Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger, a national nonprofit group dedicated to improving the children's product safety, told Whistleblower that Modert was wise not to send the company the night light.

"The way that they're dealing with it, they don't seem entirely trustworthy," Cowles said. "The company could have someone go to the family's home and examine the light."

On Friday, Modert said she was contacted by the company and now expects to reach a settlement.

"I'm just glad we had the savings to take care of it," Modert said. "What if this happened to someone who was living paycheck to paycheck?"

mlsmith@startribune.com • 612-673-4788

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  • Rebecca Modert says she has had many unproductive exchanges with the light’s manufacturer, AmerTac. On Friday, she was contacted by the company and now expects to reach a settlement.

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